Minnesota stuns Northwestern, 20-17

Northwestern fell to 0-3 in Big Ten games Saturday with a sloppy loss to the Golden Gophers.

On third-and-six, with two teams' seasons on the line, Philip Nelson rolled out right, dashed toward the sideline and just barely stumbled past the first down marker.

Review, confirmed. Burning its final timeout, Northwestern watched the last 1:12 run off the clock, and one of the most hyped years dissolve to disappointment.

Sloppy play on both sides of the ball sunk the Cats Saturday, and just three weeks after being ranked No. 16 and playing toe-to-toe with Ohio State, Northwestern lost 20-17 to Minnesota at Ryan Field. Trevor Siemian tossed two interceptions, one touchdown and 234 yards on a season-high 46 passes, while the Golden Gophers got touchdowns from wideout Derrick Engel and a pick-six from James Manuel.

"All we have to do is make smart choices and decisions and we win the football game," Pat Fitzgerald said. "We just can't turnover the ball three times and win. Disappointing."

Down 20-10 with 5:24 to play, Northwestern engineered a 14-play, 75 yard drive that featured conversions on fourth-and-3, 10 and 14. It ended in a 10-yard touchdown toss to Tony Jones, drawing the Wildcats within three with 2:07 remaining and all their timeouts. Minnesota responded with two first down runs, the Nelson scramble sealing the win.

It was a rough start for both offenses, as 12 of the first 16 possessions resulted in punts. Northwestern and Minnesota traded touchdowns in the first half, with injury fill-in Stephen Buckley scoring first on a three-yard touchdown plunge and Nelson finding Engel over the top past a gassed Dwight White for 29 in the second quarter. Five of the Wildcats' first seven drives lasted five plays or fewer.

"We're not winning, so I'm not too happy with anybody," Fitzgerald said.

Siemian's second pick of the afternoon, returned for a 24-yard touchdown by Manuel, put the Gophers up 14-7. They would never trail for the rest of the game, and Siemian fumbled on a sack from Theiren Cochran one play later that led to a Chris Hawthorne field goal.

Despite the modest second-half success, Northwestern was held to just 94 rushing yards, while Minnesota went for 176 on 49 carries. Saturday marked the first game that the Cats failed to force a turnover, while their three turnovers were the most all season. The team was without both Venric Mark and Kain Colter for the second straight week; both were sidelined with ankle injuries.

"We're a good football team. We've got some athletes, we've got some guys. We've just got to play better. As hard as we practiced last week, we have to practice that much harder this week," added Collin Ellis, who had nine tackles.

At 0-3 in conference and 4-3 total, Northwestern's lofty aspirations for 2013 won't be met. The Wildcats will try to turn things around next week in Iowa. Despite the team's struggles, Fitzgerald says he'll address the team the same way he did earlier in the season.

"I'm stoked. I'm excited to get back to work with them Monday," Fitzgerald said. "As a parent, a father, a coach, you hate to see your guys struggle. I feel bad, I want to give it to them, but that's not how life works."

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